In Geoffrey Chaucer’s verses “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from The Canterbury Tales, the readers are told that the thing that women most desire in the world is sovereignty. However, the possession of sovereignty in Chaucer’s verses is a complicated chain of control, in which only the husband or the wife can possess sovereignty and be sovereign at any moment in time; and because these characters are habituating a patriarchal social space, sovereignty is usually held by men—until and unless the woman intervenes. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the wife is depicted as a gap-toothed, handsome woman who consistently strives to dominate all her husbands. Similarly, in The Wife of Bath’s Tale all women—beautiful queens and loathly ladies alike—are shown as yearning for and seeking sovereignty. In this social space, there are very few ways for women to intervene for all of the usual routes—economic power, legal settlement, etc.—are the paths of the establishment and the state, and hence, inherently patriarchal and designed to facilitate the suppression of women. Effectively, the only—and most—useful tool in women’s arsenal becomes their physical appearance, both ghastly and lovely. Their ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ become both a feature and a body of characteristics which can, and in Chaucer’s verses successfully does, disrupt the patriarchal social order and creates pockets of opportunities for women to utilise to attain momentary and partial sovereignty. Hence, in this essay, I argue that The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale depicts a social space in which the fulfilment of women’s desire for sovereignty is contingent on their physical appearance. I further explore the effects of this relationship within the text, and the similarities between this textual relationship and the treatment of women within the real world. I arrive at the conclusion that Chaucer’s verses present an alternative model of ‘feminist’ rebellion, one in which women resist, and attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself.
The wife from the city of Bath is described in the general prologue as a bold and beautiful woman who has had five husbands till date. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, she describes three of these husbands—the ones who are rich and old—as “good” and the other two as “bad” (263). In all these relationships, the wife strives to control her husbands through treachery and manipulation. Here, I posit a direct relationship between the wife’s beautiful physical appearance, and her successful seduction of five different men to convince them to marry her. Furthermore, I interpret the wife’s assessment of her old and rich husbands as “good” as her recognition of what they can provide her—sovereignty—in exchange for her ‘beauty’, which can be utilised to satisfy their sexual appetites. In this text, it is repeatedly implied that women can only gain sovereignty through their husband’s power and status in society. Here, then, the wife of bath’s relationship with her “good” husbands presents a stark exchange economy, one in which women can exchange their ‘beauty’ (physical appearance) for a measure of sovereignty. The wife in the text further clarifies this relationship when she sets out an ultimatum to one of her “good” husbands: “You shan’t have both, you can’t be such a noddy / As think to keep my goods and have my body” (267). These lines paint a vivid picture of this exchange economy within the marital relation, in which the husband can only enjoy her “body” if he lets the wife keep her “goods”/possessions i.e., provides her with a measure of economic freedom. Unlike her fourth “bad” husband who is young enough to keep a mistress and hence, does not need the wife of bath severely enough, and her fifth “bad” husband who the wife was desperately in love with and consequently, unable to coldly manipulate into capitulating through ultimatums, the wife’s first three relationships present models of marriages in which, by the virtue of their lovely physical appearance and resulting sexual power, a wife can earn sovereignty from her husband.
Besides beauty, ‘ugliness’ is also depicted as a tool to attain sovereignty in these texts. While a beautiful woman can earn sovereignty from her husbands by trading sexual favours, an ugly woman is deemed unworthy of being ‘chased’ by men and of participating in this exchange economy and hence, is always positioned as the active agent who desires and pursues various men. The wife in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue rages at one of her “good” husbands for holding these views, and explicates that “if she has a pretty face, old traitor, / You say that she’s game for any fornicator” while “if her looks are foul you say that she / is hot for every man that she can see” (265). In these lines, the wife states that a beautiful woman is ‘game’ i.e., the hunt/hunted while an ugly woman is “hot for every man” (265) i.e., the huntress. The word choices here depict a transfer of sovereignty between the man and the woman depending upon the woman’s physical appearance. While a beautiful woman can only be the ‘hunt’, and later attain a measure of sovereignty by trading sexual favours with the man, an ugly woman is in the position of the ‘huntress’ i.e., she’s—by virtue of being able to choose her object of desire—already sovereign. The wife further clarifies her husband’s notion by declaring, “You say it’s hard to keep a girl controlled / If she’s the kind that no one wants to hold” (265). These lines throw light on the power of ‘ugliness’ to make a woman invisible and hence, untethered by the patriarchal rules of society which seek to possess and control beauty. Through her loathsome physical appearance, the woman effectively attains sovereignty.
The tale of the loathly lady in The Wife of Bath’s Tale further complicates this relationship between physical appearance and beauty by presenting a woman who can choose to appear either beautiful or loathsome. In this text, a knight is morose because he has been forced to marry a foul-looking lady. In response, his ugly wife offers him two choices: to either have her old and ugly till she dies, but still be a loyal, true, and humble wife; or to have her young and pretty, and in turn, risk her loyalty to him (291). On hearing his options, the knight significantly does not make a choice himself but tells the wife that “you make the choice yourself…Of what may be agreeable and rich / In honour to us both…Whatever pleases you suffices me” (291). In this moment, the knight seemingly offers the loathly lady sovereignty i.e., the freedom to choose either beauty or ugliness. I, however, argue that by virtue of offering her husband these choices itself, the wife loses her sovereignty. The lady who, until then, could have freely chosen to appear either beautiful or ugly binds herself to her husband’s desire by offering him this choice. His offering of free choice to the lady then is not a transfer of sovereignty to the lady, but a transfer of a measure of sovereignty (and control over herself) to her husband. Before marrying the knight, the lady had appeared as an extremely foul-looking creature; and by sheer virtue of her ugliness, she had maintained her sovereignty in the patriarchal society which values, commodifies, and exchanges women on the basis of their physical appearance. In essence, she would have been invisible to others; and hence, free to look at everyone. However, by “cast[ing] up the curtain” (292) of her ugliness, and by transforming into a young and beautiful woman (which makes her husband ecstatic), the knight’s wife loses her sovereignty. By further vowing to her husband that now he shall find her “both fair and faithful as a wife” (291), the wife even gives up the power of her beauty to potentially manipulate him for favours, and completely binds herself to a life of partial, and eternally earned sovereignty.
The instances of the wife of bath and the loathly lady in Chaucer’s verses present similar but distinct situations where sovereignty is attained by women by wielding their physical appearance. While the wife of bath trades sexual favours to earn her sovereignty, the loathly lady depicts a woman who was originally sovereign—for she chose to appear ugly and hence, was invisible and positioned outside this exchange economy—but gives up a measure of this sovereignty by both turning beautiful and vowing to stay faithful to her husband. These women, then, present a model of ‘feminist’ rebellion in which women attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself. By successfully wielding ‘beauty’, a quality which is highly valued and priced by social agents in patriarchy, especially in association with women, these women posit a pattern of protest in which women steal slices of freedom without any grand, explicit revolution, and while staying within the patriarchal system itself. This depicts a form of disobedience in which women exploit the fractures in patriarchal societies; and turn sexist notions on their head to avail benefits for themselves. Plus, it reconfirms that while women need to earn sovereignty through beauty (or, as in the twenty-first century, by proving themselves as effective cogs in the capitalist hierarchy); men in patriarchal societies are always already sovereign. These notions urge me to ask then if this form of resistance is even desirable, for does it not effectively prompt women to surrender to the patriarchy, and repeatedly re-earn their sovereignty? It also makes me wonder if any other form of revolution is ever possible in a social space principally shaped and regulated by men.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated into Modern English by Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics. Published by the Penguin Group. 2013.